Mike Nichols biography a candid portrait of ‘the wrong Jew’

Nichols' Jewish identity and his immigrant perspective on American culture and human foibles informed his work

MikeNichols image
Nichols with Candice Bergen, Art Garfunkel, and Jack Nicholson on a break during their Carnal Knowledge shoot. Photo courtesy of American Society of Cinematographers Collection/Margaret Herrick Library/Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Mark Harris' new lively biography,  Mike Nichols: A Life , includes an anecdote oft-told in interviews by Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman, then an unknown, resisted reading for the part of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, a plum role that could, and later did, make him a star. But at the time he felt he would have been miscast. "This character is so WASPish," he protested to Nichols, who directed the film. Nichols responded, "Maybe he's Jewish inside." 

Nichols' Jewish identity and his immigrant perspective on American culture and human foibles informed his work. A mere recitation of his estimable stage and screen credits would take up the space of this article (It takes Harris upward of 600 pages to do justice to this prodigious artist). But here's some highlights: 

Original member of the Playwrights Theater Club, which evolved into The Second City; one-half of the legendary comedy team of Nichols and May; nine-time Tony Award-winner for such products as the original The Odd Couple ; the Philip Seymour Hoffman-starring revival of  Death of a Salesman  and the blockbuster musical  Spamalot ; the Oscar-winning director of  The Graduate  and the Emmy-winning director of  Wit  and  Angels in America.

Nichols is in the show business EGOT pantheon of those who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. 

More revelatory than the behind-the-scenes stories of Nichols' many successes are the ones about his failures, such as his ill-fated screen adaptation of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 . While the film has grown in critical esteem over the decades, at the time, Nichols knew it was doomed when it was preceded in theaters by Robert Altman's M*A*S*H . "I almost passed out," Nichols said upon seeing the film. "It was brilliant and alive and it put us to shame." 

With Nichols having worked with such promethean talents as Neil Simon, Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Whoopi Goldberg, and Steve Martin, A Life (Penguin Press) is entertaining just for its show business anecdotes, such as the now mythic encounter between University of Chicago students Nichols and Elaine May on a public transportation platform. Nichols approached her and in a German accent asked, "May I zit down?" "You are Agent X-9?" she responded, and the two literally created a scene during that fateful train ride. 

Nichols was born Igor Michael Peschkowsky in Berlin in 1931, but as Harris relates, Nichols considered himself born at the age of seven when in 1939, he fled Hitler's Germany with his brother on a ship bound for America. "A Jew in Nazi Germany, parents always fighting," he once dryly mused. "Aren't all childhoods bad?" 

Harris recounts painful childhood stories in which his German accent and bald head (an allergic reaction to a whooping cough vaccine) made him feel like an outsider at his private school that accepted Jews. "I was a zero," Nichols would recall. "In every way that mattered I was powerless." He would be motivated for a long time after," he said, "by revenge," which may, in part, account for his often-devastating wit. 

Another powerful recurring theme is survivor's guilt. Harris recounts that one of the things that moved Nichols to work with then-unknown performance artist Whoopi Goldberg was a character piece she did about a junkie who visits Anne Frank's museum. "Nichols wept," Harris writes. "He went backstage, hugged her, and offered his help on the spot." Nichols directed the one-woman show that put her on the cultural map. 

A Life is an understated title for one with such an extraordinary career. Nichols, who died in 2014, had his own ideas for the title of his biography. In 2000, he was cast as Carmela Soprano's psychiatrist on an episode of The Sopranos, but Nichols ultimately backed out. "You need another Jew-I'm the wrong Jew for this particular shrink," he told the show's creator, David Chase. "That should be the title of my biography-'The Wrong Jew.'" 

Donald Liebenson is a Chicago writer who writes for VanityFair.com , LA Times , Chicago Tribune , and other outlets. 

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